Deer Tick’s John McCauley Spreads Negativity

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There was a time when Deer Tick frontman John McCauley wouldn’t do interviews before 4 p.m. So it was a fairly big deal that we got him on the phone at noon, even if he was a little groggy.

“Sorry I was so out of it the first few minutes of our chat,” he said after shaking the cobwebs loose. “I’m just waking up.”

As McCauley has backed off a bit from such rock ‘n’ roll extremes as spending all day sleeping off a bender, his folk troubadour side has come into clearer focus. He’s proven he can meet the performing singer-songwriter’s greatest challenge — carrying an entire show with nothing and nobody but the songs to lean on. And on Deer Tick’s latest album, Negativity, he’s taken the confessional song craft up a notch or three.

CMT Edge: When Deer Tick played loud, wild shows with your amps cranked all the way up, the assumption was that having a good time took first priority. When you’re doing shows where it’s all about your voice and guitar, it puts a different side of you on display.

McCauley: I suppose. I mean, the let’s-get-[messed]-up or whatever songs, they work pretty well on acoustic guitar, too.

There were songs on Deer Tick’s Divine Providence, like “Let’s All Go to the Bar,” about being numbed-out, whereas there are songs on Negativity, like “Trash,” that are more self-aware. What did it take to get more vulnerable with your songwriting?

I don’t know. I spent a lot of time working on Negativity, and I guess a lot of shit caught up with me.

In the track-by-track notes, you wrote about what you’d been dealing with, from called-off engagements to your dad going to prison [on federal charges of conspiracy and tax fraud]. That’s one reason people have said this is your most personal album yet. To me, it’s also your most polished album, with tighter hooks and arrangements. How did producer Steve Berlin put you through your paces?

Any time I’d instinctually want to do something one way, he’d say, “No, that’s wrong. Do it this way.” I found him really easy to work with. I mean, there were times at first when I would get pretty annoyed. He did change the structure of almost every song that I brought to him.

But I started realizing it was pretty cool. My own songs were getting stuck in my head. He just kind of guided us through the process of making a real song by telling us what people don’t want to listen to.

Was it a new thing to have somebody telling you that you shouldn’t necessarily settle for the first idea that comes to mind, that some ideas require tweaking?

It wasn’t new, but there was just a lot more of it.

You and Vanessa Carlton duet on “In Our Time,” the song you wrote about your parents’ relationship from their perspective. What was it like to take on those roles?

I guess it felt kinda cutesy. But I think it works. I think we did a good job. My mom likes the song. She’s my toughest critic on it. So she’s happy. Vanessa’s mother thinks we should do an entire album of duets. She’s so funny. She mentions it every time she sees me — “Just think, you can go on tour together. You can be on the same bus.”

Your mom gets to hear the music you’re making, but your dad doesn’t have access to it while he’s incarcerated. He can only download approved music, and I gather that Deer Tick is not on that list. Were the songs you wrote about him at all affected by the fact that he won’t get to hear them anytime soon?

I just wrote it and put it out and realized that when that day comes that he hears everything, it might be a little awkward. But I’ve got a few years to think about it.

Unless Deer Tick becomes prison-approved listening in the meantime.

I don’t know how they decide. They approved [my other band] Middle Brother. I think there are some Deer Tick albums that are way more appropriate than the Middle Brother album. (laughs)

You’ve talked about feeling a connection with Levon Helm and named Lightnin’ Hopkins as one of your guitar heroes. What were the first rootsy influences that rubbed off on you?

I probably got it through Nirvana, you know, discovering Leadbelly. And the Meat Puppets. There’s something about hearing Nirvana sing “Where Did You Sleep Last Night.” I knew it wasn’t a Nirvana song, and I had to find out what it was. I mean, the Meat Puppets, that’s a pretty far stretch for some rootsy music, but I guess it’s sorta weird, psychedelic country.

I know you were also a big Beatles fan growing up, and they did their share of borrowing from blues and country early on.

You know, [Buck Owens’] “Act Naturally,” I thought was just a Beatles song. All that stuff, the blues numbers they did, like [Carl Perkins’] “Matchbox,” I assumed they were Beatles songs as a kid. I didn’t know they were covering American country and blues.

When Deer Tick put together a Nirvana covers set, people talked about Kurt Cobain’s influence on you. Have people connected the dots in similar ways when you’ve covered John Prine songs like “Sam Stone” or “Unwed Fathers”?

I think people get a pretty good idea that somebody like John Prine or Townes Van Zandt is just as important to me as Nirvana or the Replacements.

You’ve often talked about going to see John Prine at Carnegie Hall.

Yeah.

You played Carnegie Hall last year yourself. That, along with appearing at Newport Folk Festival and a set I saw you play at Nashville’s Stone Fox, have been occasions to showcase your songs. That’s a different style of performance than people were used to seeing from you a few years back. What’s contributed to the shift?

I guess I just like to be able to showcase the songs the way they were written. I like doing that because I don’t have to load anything in. (laughs) If somebody wants to come see me all by myself, that’s a pretty cool feeling.

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